Archive for the ‘MacMillan’ Category

Clemency, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, May 2011

12 May, 2011

In Genesis Chapter 18 three unknown men visit Abraham. He welcomes them warmly and gives them food. In return they tell him that his wife Sarah will have a child, though “it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”. She laughs, but the Lord promises to return a year hence when she will have a son. The men then rise up to go and destroy the twin cities, but Abraham negotiates — not an easy task when you’re dealing with omnipotence. He asks for clemency if there be but fifty righteous within Sodom, and the Lord agrees. Then Abraham reduces the number to forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, ten, and always the Lord agrees to relent. In the end, however, we move to Chapter 19, and Sodom is destroyed.

Grant Doyle as Abraham, all photos Stephen Cummiskey

This opera by James Macmillan deals just with Chapter 18, powerful and riveting stuff. Here is the Sumerian god Enlil, angry and willing to destroy as he did in the flood story, though in that ancient Sumerian tale the wise god Enki contrives to preserve life, by advising one man to build an ark. In the Biblical narrative, however, there is only one God, embodying multiple natures, and Genesis 18 is fascinating in the role Abraham plays, almost as if he were Enki, whose Sumerian name means earth lord. Of course Abraham is not a god, though he does later become lord of many flocks and a great household.

Doyle with Janis Kelly as Sarah

In this opera, however, Abraham and Sarah still live very simply, and the beginning was entirely silent, the only sound coming from the running water that Sarah is using to wash vegetables and prepare dinner. Eventually Abraham sings unaccompanied as if chanting a prayer, and at the end of his chanting the orchestra enters. Gradually the opera picks up momentum, and the three men enter. It might seem from this slow start that we are being prepared for a long evening, yet the whole thing lasts less than an hour, and Macmillan’s harmonious music creates a strong impression. This is a composer who has the ability to remain quiet and subdued but yet bring forth the full weight of the orchestra when it suits him.

His new work Clemency is one I would be very happy to revisit, but it’s not easy to catch the words as they are sung, so I recommend getting there early enough to read through the short libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, which is included with the programme. It’s also worth reading Genesis 18 before you go. As many people will know, this is the 400th anniversary of the Authorised King James translation of the Bible, hence the Biblical topic, and it’s an excellent one to choose.

The music was beautifully played by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, and Grant Doyle and Janis Kelly sang strongly as Abraham and Sarah, as did Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise as the three men. The set design by Alex Eales is a triptych with Sarah’s kitchen in the left frame, and the three visitors appear only in the centre, reflecting the three-in-oneness of this story. The strangers are three, yet they act as one, and in the Biblical narrative it is sometimes God who speaks.

Performances of this ROH2 co-production with Scottish Opera continue at Covent Garden until May 14  — for more details click here.

Parthenogenesis, Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio, June 2009

14 June, 2009


When the curtain fell the audience waited for a scene change that never came. Eventually someone applauded and when this was taken up, the curtain lifted so the cast could take bows — it was the end of the opera.

The inspiration for this opera was far more striking than the result. In 1944 in Hanover a young woman was thrown to the pavement by a bomb blast nearby, suffered minor injuries, and nine months later gave birth to a daughter. The girl was said to have identical fingerprints, and other genetic indicators, to her mother, who insisted that she had never had sex with anyone. Doctors confirmed this seemed to be the case, and conjectured that the shock of the bomb may have triggered parthenogenesis — non-sexual reproduction — a word derived from the Greek parthenon meaning a young maiden.

On this unlikely theme the composer James MacMillan has created a 50-minute opera in which an adult clone named Anna lies in hospital in the last stages of ovarian cancer. In her sleep she recalls her mother’s meeting a fallen angel who visits her bedroom to inform her she will give birth without first having sex. The mother and the angel are singing roles, performed by Amy Freston and Stephan Loges, while Charlotte Roach took the spoken role of Anna. The text was by Michael Symmonds Roberts, and while James MacMillan is a composer inspired by intellectual and religious themes, he seems to be no man of the stage. As a piece of theatre this simply didn’t work.